Integration – a story of a first year teacher, a special girl who learned how to read, a group of freshmen cheerleaders, and why we need to learn together

On my first day of teaching fourteen years ago, I welcomed 35 students to a first period high school Spanish I class. I cried by the time lunch happened. I could not believe that the state of California had entrusted the care of 160 students to me, and that each student would bring a different set of skills, experiences, attitudes, and abilities. It was an overwhelming feeling of responsibility. And not only did I need to teach all these teenagers how to communicate through listening, speaking, reading, and writing in a new language, but one of my students had never learned to read or write, and physically struggled with speech. She was a 14 year old girl with cognitive and gross motor skills impairments. As a county special ed day student, she was to be integrated into two mainstream classes on the school campus. This was her mainstream class, along with art. She was also a Spanish speaker from a monolingual Mexican Spanish speaking family who understood everything I said in Spanish – much more than in English. But she was in my beginning Spanish class. How or what was I going to teach her? The shock of the first morning of teaching combined with the overwhelming worry and obligation I felt toward being able to include a Spanish speaking girl with high special education needs into a freshman Spanish class threw me into a silent reverie of absolute panic. The next day I came back to school without quitting and I figured out how to make it work.

I launched myself into the life of a teacher. I worked from dawn to dusk, then again at home at night, then again on the weekends. My special student was in my most boisterous and “difficult” to manage class. There were six chatty freshmen cheerleaders who never stopped talking, a precious nerdy boy who could not pronounce a word in Spanish, a class clown who kept everyone in stitches by making fart jokes and drawing ridiculous comics and sending them around the classroom. I struggled to maintain calm, productive excitement and composure. Thankfully, the special needs student had been assigned a one to one aide, and by luck of the draw, the aide spoke Spanish. While in class, I had the girl and her aide practice reading the letters and numbers, repeat simple vocabulary words with the class, and participate in short conversation practices with her beginning Spanish classmates. During my prep period, I brought my student short little books in Spanish for her aide to read to her and for her to sound out the words.

In the Spring semester, I had acclimated to the intense teaching schedule and was better able to manage my students. The freshmen cheerleaders had taken an interest in their special classmate, and had started asking her questions about her life, her family, her likes and dislikes. The class watched a movie made in the late 80’s called “Sweet 15” about a Mexican American girl’s coming of age who finds out that her father is an undocumented immigrant. We read a little article in basic Spanish about quinceañeras in the textbook. We looked at pictures of quinceañeras and discussed in English the concept of coming of age in different families and cultures. And then our special student told us that she was turning 15. The next week, my 6 chatty freshmen cheerleaders decided to throw our special student a quinceañera class party. They decided to throw her Colombian aide a party too because they had found out that Colombians don’t celebrate the tradition in the same way as Mexicans. On their own, the girls bought two quinceañera crowns, special party favors, and made a cake. Someone’s mom made tamales. The cheerleaders met me early the day of the party at Safeway to fill up 30 + pink and purple balloons with Helium.

We celebrated our special student’s coming of age with our own made-up quinceañera. That weekend she celebrated her actual quince with her family and church. At that time, the aide shared with me that our girl had made a tremendous leap. She was reading Spanish words on her own. She was reading for the first time in her life. She was reading in Spanish, she was reading slowly, she was reading for her aide, and she was reading for me. We devised a presentation project for her to share with the class. The aide would help her put pictures of her official quinceañera party on the computer. The aide would help type up descriptions of each picture. And our girl would practice reading it. A few weeks later, she was ready. She sat in her wheelchair at the front of the class. I borrowed a projector and connected it to my computer. Our girl read the entire presention of her quinceañera to the class. The aide cried. I cried. Some of the cheerleaders cried. This was a monumental accomplishment for a 14 year old who had never been able to read.

I tell this story because it is about so many things that I love about teaching in our integrated public school system in which a student might learn to read in an unconventional way, a Spanish speaker may learn from English speakers and vice versa, and a group of cliquish and loud Asian, white and African American girls enamored with the idea of popularity may make a friend from an unexpected and completely different walk of life.

A girl with “severe” cognitive and physical disabilities learned how to read with the help of an entire community.

My student, María, learned how to read 14 years ago for the first time at the age of 14 years old. She had never mastered the art of reading prior to this because her teachers’ attempts had been in English. Her cognitive development had not allowed her to develop English fully as a second language. English vocabulary and archaic spelling rules impeded her development in this area. Perhaps she had needed more time for her slow cognitive development to reach the stage of reading. And maybe she needed the right combination of time and circumstances and people to reach this developmental milestone.

I hope that this story that can serve as some message of hope in the promise of integration and inclusion. If California (or our country) does not see fit to fully fund education, we may seek to pit the needs of one community over the needs of another. We may see the needs of special ed students, English language learners, GATE students, dual immersion students, privileged students, undocumented students, music students, students of color, and poor students as competing with our own children for diminishing resources. When we allow ourselves to imagine that a hierarchy exists, we do damage to ourselves. We are destroying conditions in which all students can learn and thrive. We are destroying our shared body of wisdom and experience. We cannot let ourselves divide.

I will share a poem that many of us share with our students to help us form classroom communities of responsibility and empathy toward one another.

In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo

You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti

If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mí mismo

I do harm to myself;

Si te amo y respeto

If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo

I love and respect myself.

– From Luis Valdez’s “Pensamiento Serpentino”

Tracking Students and GATE in SFUSD

In the past few days, the issue of tracking (separating students into different classes based on some measure of ability or aptitude which almost entirely replicates the inequities of our society in terms of class and race) and GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) has been the hot topic among SFUSD’s guardians of social justice and the savvy, crunchy, funky, techie, gentrifying, intellectual parent crowd. The ensuing debate has been difficult and edifying for all of us at the middle school and high school level. A group of parents, a few of them my friends, went to this week’s Board Meeting to propose pathways (and clear accountability) to get more kids the challenging curriculum they need. The parents feel that the district has taken away 8th grade Algebra, thus creating difficulties for students to reach Calculus and STEM classes in high school, while replacing it with differentiated learning that seems more theoretical than achievable in the city’s heterogeneous classrooms. While 8th grade Algebra is the biggest “track needing” class that parents (and some teachers) point to, parents are also bemoaning the lack of more challenging options in other “differentiated in name only” classes as well.

My post on “Tracking“, written as an email for a group of parent friends three years ago, has been reposted several times in the past few days and has reached Board Member Rachel Norton, who has now posted a comment on it. 

I have reread my original “post” and I am still in agreement with everything it says (and wonder how I ever had the time to write like that!). One piece I would add is the necessity of small class sizes. There is a huge difference in what I was able to do with my students in my Spanish for Native Speaker class last semester with only 20 students compared to what I can do in my classes of 31-35 this year (which have a high number of traumatized SIFE – Students with Interrupted Formal Education). In general, class size is not an insignificant issue in education. In Oklahoma City in the 80’s I remember my classes being around 25 students – once in a while there was a larger class (30 students – gasp!) and it felt overwhelming to me as a student. There are a few superhero teachers who can manage and teach to all levels in large classes well, but I am not one of them, particularly when teaching my beginning level Spanish (and Native Speaker) courses. But my advanced level courses suffer too because I frankly can’t reach all of my students and give them the consistent and weighty feedback that they deserve.

SF Public School Mom (and Teacher) blogger Alison Collins has a great write up about “Tracking” with a lot of info and a chart showing the inequities of representation by different racial groups under SFUSD’s previously tracked pathways.

It’s an important topic, worth talking about when we think about concrete steps we can take to remediate our racist and colonialist past that haunts our dehumanizing categorical systems of today. It is a conversation I long to have with teachers and parents and administrators at the school where I teach as well.

Maestra Malinche 

“The standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Why I am opting out – a guide for parents

I am a public school teacher in California and I am opting my 5th grader out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Tests this year.

Here is a link to the Opt Out form for San Francisco Unified.

Here is why:

The tests will not help my child’s teacher know my child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Test scores will not be out until the summer. My child’s current teacher will not be able to use the information to improve instruction in any way for my child this year.

My child will lose many hours of instruction in order to prepare for and take the SBAC tests. This time could be used for more meaningful instruction, such as doing an interesting reading project, a social studies, math, art, music or science research project or doing an end of the school year play.

The computerized test interface is clumsy and frustrating for students, and not based on cognitive development. It’s not likely that younger students can type as fast as they can handwrite; the multiple tabs and windows are difficult to navigate, and students at different schools will be taking the tests on a multitude of interfaces, thus rendering invalid the test results. Taking the test on a desktop with a large screen, on a small laptop and on an iPad are different experiences. Here is my blog post about taking the SBAC practice test. Here is one from a fourth grader’s dad. And here is one from a parent in Seattle. While computer skills are important, the skills needed for taking this test do not match how professionals use computers in their work lives, nor how students learn and best demonstrate learning. Children learn to read more quickly, generate more ideas and retain information better when they learn to write by hand.  And college students also learn better when they write notes by hand instead of on a computer. 

Standardized tests do not help poor, minority, English language learner and special ed students. These groups of students historically score low on standardized tests, in addition to particularly bright students who will often “overthink” answers. Low scores on standardized tests have created schools serving large numbers of these students into reward and punishment test prep centers, with fewer opportunities for enrichment and engaging lessons that higher socio-economically advantaged students have access to. More and more African American and other educators are defending the Opt Out Movement as an antidote to the systematic racism in our society in which poor and minority children receive fewer educational dollars and resources, and are viewed as “deficient”. Check out these powerful articles: this article or this article or this article or my own blog post on the issue.

Barack and Michelle Obama, along with many other well-educated and wealthy parents, have opted their children out of the national standardized tests by sending their children to private schools. Private schools offer smaller class size, enriching project-based curriculum, individual learning plans and a well-rounded education that includes humanities, arts, sciences, maths, world languages, physical education, extensive field trips, and community projects. Teachers and parents in these schools are not requesting that students take more standardized tests such as the SBAC, and they do not publish the scores of the tests that they do take. Public school students should have access to the same educational models that our most advantaged citizens have. Here is the beautiful Sidwell Friends school that the Obama children attend.

My child’s teachers may be rated on the outcome of how their students perform, regardless of school demographics and regardless of how much I believe my child has learned (or hasn’t). Although my child’s teachers will never see my child’s test to learn from it, they will need to take time from other essential instruction to teach students to perform on this test. Educational researchers have stated that the tests should for diagnostic purposes only, and should not be used to rank and sort teachers. Race to the Top (RTTT) mandated under the Obama administration coerced states into accepting a teacher evaluation system based in part on how their students do on the state assessments. This and other merit based plans do not improve student learning as borne out by research, but do lead to higher incidences of systematic cheating, questionable teaching practices and a narrowing of the curriculum.

There is no evidence to support that high stakes tests improve student learning. The accountability system set up by No Child Left Behind did not boost achievement, according to the National Research Council and many other peer-reviewed educational research. Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, has written books on the misuse of standardized testing in China and in the United States. He predicts that the U.S will lose its creative entrepreneurial edge by subscribing to the merit of standardized tests. He states, “we will see a further narrowing of the curriculum and educational experiences. Whatever innovative teaching that has not been completely lost in the schools may finally be gone.”

The cut scores are arbitrary and set with a political vision rather than an educational one. Last year, 70% of NY State students scored below proficient on the PARCC Common Core tests. This was a political decision aimed at making more families question whether public schools were doing their job. It backfired, NY changed the cut scores, and many New Yorkers are opting their students out of this year’s tests.

The SBAC are an experimental attempt to assess student proficiency on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). However, the CCSS themselves are still experimental and controversial in many regards. Very few teachers were involved in creating them, and many of us are quite skeptical of their claim that they can do what they propose: “to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live.” The standards were never tested on cohorts of students before their exceedingly quick implementation. Here is a detailed explanation of the 24 “work group” committee members who developed the standards. Here is a nice sheet about their how they were developed and the money behind them. 

Opting Out is a great democratic tool to fight the corporate takeover of public education. Many articles and books have been written about the loss of public school management, curriculum, and the overuse of testing due to well funded corporate interests.  Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, said it this way, “This growing struggle over the future of American education may be proxy for the future of our democratic republic.”

Love the Common Core standards or hate the standards, when new standards are forcibly implemented by top-down federal initiatives without proper time to develop them, you end up with shoddy teaching, shoddy materials and shoddy tests. This article is about Jason Zimba, one of the authors of the CCSS math standards, who despises how his daughter is learning math with the new standards in place. He spends his weekends reteaching her so that she will love math as he does.

Opting out of the SBAC tests can help politicians understand that parents want well-funded schools, well-prepared teachers, small class sizes and respect for children. It may feel like an act of disrespect toward your child’s school or teacher; on the other hand, it is likely that your teacher will applaud your decision to support a better public education system with better funding, better teacher support, and fewer distracting standardized tests that eat up instructional time.

Ask your child’s teacher about opting out and providing an alternative project during testing time. My child will be reading books with younger children, writing stories, and working as a Junior Coach. Talk to other parents about your decision to opt out. There is a huge movement that is growing from all sectors of society. Get familiar with alternative educational resources for standardized testing:

United Opt Out

National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Authentic Assessment – Fair Test

Alternative Assessments – Washington Post

Linda Darling-Hammond on standardized testing in the implementation of the Common Core

Diane Ravitch’s blog – a resource on public educational issues

Retired Oakland teacher Anthony Cody’s educational blog

Thank you for reading,

Maestra Malinche

“High-stakes testing is America’s Faustian bargain.” Yong Zhao

A Guatemalan Student, Indian Boarding Schools and Cultural Oppression through Standardized Tests

An Indian Boarding School in New Mexico
An Indian Boarding School in New Mexico

One of my newcomer Guatemalan students comes from a Mayan community that observes an old Mesoamerican tradition of dental beautification – he sports gold decorations in his front upper teeth that have been carefully drilled in. The decorations are pretty, and quite unique – he shared with me that two of them form the shape of his initials. As a high school student, he is notoriously good-humored, adolescently forgetful, and a bit lost in his new land, but he has come a long way since January when he wasn’t sure if he should come to school at all.

I engaged the newcomer students this semester with a unit on Pre-Columbian civilizations that included geography, systems of knowledge, cultural practices, art, science and writing. We connected the foods that we eat now to the foods that were produced and eaten up to 2000 years ago, read about the Popol Vuh, created artistic representations of our birthday symbols according to one of the two Mayan calendars, analyzed the demise of the Aztec, Incan and Mayan civilizations, and studied important historical dates and figures in the Spanish conquest. One of the assessments I gave was a typical rote memory exam of key information learned in class. Unfortunately, like several of my other newcomer students, this student had misunderstood every historical “fact” examined in class: on his test, he said that the first people in the Americas were from Europe, Columbus was the ruler of the Aztecs when their empire fell, and that the major cause of the deaths of the Indigenous Americans after the Europeans arrived was due to not fighting hard enough.

As a teacher who has often taught newcomer students with very little formal education, I had to laugh and get some perspective about the absurdity of this white dominant American culture woman teaching a surviving member of the Mesoamerican culture about a timeline and history of his own people and how my people came to dominate politically and economically. I retaught the material, gave him a chance to memorize this teacher’s version of historical fact, and he retook the test with much better results. And I gave him credit for referring to Francisco Pizarro as “Pizza”, which will go down as one of my most favorite linguistic student errors of my career, as pizza is the dominant food offered at American public schools.

In Oklahoma, I had friends at public school whose parents were taken away from their homes as children to live in Indian Boarding Schools. In these schools, the children were expected to acculturate to the white way, unlearn their home languages and acquire an unyielding respect for authority. These schools were frought with child abuse and nightmares. They scarred yet another generation of Native Americans with lasting emotional wounds. As a teacher, I work in a field that is part of the process of cultural assimilation, and I must reckon with its implications and effects, for good or bad. As a teacher, I serve the public interest of helping students to integrate and assimilate into the dominant culture. Thankfully, current best practices indicate using culturally responsive teaching methods, and require inclusion of the histories and perspectives of non-dominant groups, and no longer remove young children from their family homes, or forget their cultural practices and home languages. But I constantly wonder and ask myself, as a cultural interpreter and representative of the culture of power, how I, and my lessons, mold a student’s feelings toward herself, her power, her culture and her language. And I wonder how the institution of school itself and its practices can be harmful to the development of a person, and their identity of worth and value to society.

Which brings me to standardized testing, and its use as a new tool of oppression.

I often reflect on whether the intense focus on standardized testing in public schools is akin to Indian Boarding Schools. Perhaps a stretch, but perhaps not. Two stories have come out this last week about the cultural educational space occupied by minorities in our society. One story is about the militaristic exercises employed by a group of schools that serve minority students. The other is about the locking up of a large group of African American teachers for a cheating scandal involved with mandatory standardized tests. In both stories, standardized testing is used to indoctrinate minorities to a certain displacement and comparison with the dominant culture of power. In order to access such power, extreme measures are put into place with the promise that power can be gained via improvement on such tests.

The first story was published on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. The article details and questions the “success” of the Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City. A very disturbing story about the experiences of minority youth enrolled at the schools is told: students are shamed and humiliated, forced to sit, stand and learn in certain postures, given constant extrinsic rewards and punishments, made to practice standardized tests for months in lieu of more holistic or engaging instruction, and are prone to wetting their pants out of fear and anxiety. The students at these schools are primarily African American, Latino and poor, and, as such, are regarded as needing such a strict and humiliating environment for their own good. The teachers seem to be overwhelmingly white, new to teaching, and likely to quit within one or two years, after extreme stress, mental and physical exhaustion, and deep reflection about their core values. Indian Boarding Schools come to mind.

There are some who argue that test taking skills are important because so much of a child’s educational prospects depend on it, and that the poor performance of poor children, African American children, Latino children, Native American children and children with special education can be remedied by spending much more time at school practicing test taking skills. However, it was also reported in this same article that none of the graduating 8th graders managed to get a high enough standardized test score to enable them to enroll in a New York City magnet school. So, the years of racial isolation from wealthier and whiter students, high teacher turnover, and intense test prep were still not enough to allow them to enter into the world of the academically elite and culture of power.

The second story is about the conviction of 11 teachers in Atlanta sentenced to 20 years in prison for changing students’ test answers on standardized tests. The context of this story is common throughout urban centers and children of color. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), high stakes standardized tests repurposed many public schools as test prep centers. Students’ test scores had to increase each year in order for teachers to maintain their ratings, receive bonuses, and to ensure continued funding for their schools and students. The teachers and the students caught in the school scandals of Atlanta are primarily African American. However, the primary cause of the rampant system wide cheating were the effects of the impossible improvement targets from the NCLB mandate that all students and schools test at 100% by 2014. Without yearly improvements, Atlanta schools risked losing their funding, their teachers and their local control. Many educators are speaking out about the damaging effects of standardized tests on the educational circumstances of our most vulnerable youth, and some are speaking out about a system that is oppressing minority youth and jailing their minority teachers, much more eloquently that I. Last summer, the New Yorker published an article about Damany Lewis, an African American teacher who was caught up in the Atlanta cheating scandal. Damany’s story is incredibly moving, and I empathized with him as a teacher working hard to serve his students. The story humanizes each “criminal” step Mr. Lewis took in order to protect his students and to keep teaching them, in spite of the miserable atmosphere of testing and sanctions.

Much has been written over the last years about the demoralizing effects of No Child Left Behind standardized test mandates. Teachers are leaving the profession. Parents are looking for alternative schools that still allow time for art, the humanities, and play. Schools in urban areas are more segregated than ever because public schools have a hard time attracting heterogeneous groups of students when test scores and test preparation overshadow every other program that a school might be able to offer with its dwindling supply of public dollars for a well-rounded education. Although California has had a reprieve for two years from the high stakes standardized testing, without ill effect on our students and teachers, we are now entering into a new oppressive regime of web-based Common Core SBAC tests, in which teachers and students, particularly minority students and their teachers will be judged harshly once more.

And, just yesterday, at the national level, ESEA (otherwise known as No Child Left Behind) was re-authorized by the Senate, but in a very different form. Parents and teachers have been writing letters to change the scope and vision of the federal education program, and some of what we have been demanding has gained traction. Much more power is restored to the states to determine which tests to use, and how to evaluate their teachers and programs. However, the requirement of yearly testing between 3rd and 8th grade and in the junior year of high school remains, despite the years of research that show the punitive and damaging effects that such tests have on all our students, our teachers and our public schools.

Tomorrow I will teach my newcomer students again, I will laugh and learn with them, I will enculturate them with kindness and test “do-overs” to encourage them to learn, endure and succeed in our system. I may even judiciously shame them if they are rude or unambitious in class. And, I will wonder about their value as new citizens of our country, a country in which we use standardized testing to determine a child’s worth. Is this what we want? Is this how we evaluate people’s potential contributions to society? Mandated standardized testing for public school students is enshrined in law and governed by big business. And I say no.

If you have time, please call your senator about getting rid of the federal testing mandate. Or send them an email.

Here are a few articles and posts about the new version of the Federal Education Act and Standardized Testing, current Common Core tests, Opting Out and some historical context:

Detailed analysis of the new Every Child Achieves Act (the new NCLB) by Mercedes Schneider

A parent takes the 4th grade Common Core test

Diane Ravitch’s article on the Lost Purpose of School Reform

High Stakes Testing Makes Surveillance Necessary by Anthony Cody, retired Oakland teacher

A review of The Test, a new book by Anya Karmenetz, on “how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness.”

American Statistical Association Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment

Opt-Out Movement about more than tests

Empathy v. Criticism: how to respond to those who think more testing is need to improve public education

Thank you for reading.

Maestra Malinche

“…you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” James Baldwin

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein

Tell Congress to roll back standardized testing


This post is long overdue and it is a call to action.

Tell Congress to roll back standardized testing

In 2002 when I became a teacher, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became the new name of public education in the United States. This law had a huge effect on how teachers and students would teach and learn together, and how the federal government would recognize, reward and punish individual states, school districts, individual schools, teachers and students for achieving and failing to achieve state assessment standards.

NCLB was a powerful reauthorization of an older federal educational act called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, signed into law under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. The underlying goal of both ESEA and NCLB was to ensure a quality education for all children regardless of zip code and demographics.

Unfortunately, after 2002, it soon became clear to most teachers working in the public school system, particularly to those who worked with poor kids in poor neighborhoods that NCLB was set up to fail all children rather than to set them up for success. In accordance with NCLB, all students in grades 3 through 8 would now take yearly standardized tests in English and Math, their scores would be noted alongside their demographic information, their schools would be ranked, and their teachers and schools would be held “accountable”. The accountability provision had a serious goal: all students were to be proficient in English and Math by 2014.

Last year, 2014, 100% proficient. All students. Everywhere.

Let that sink in.

When students, teachers, schools, school districts and states did not meet their target, there would be repercussions.

And no school would be able to meet that target. And eventually all schools would be marked failures. School shutdowns, transfers of students to privatized charter schools, fired teachers and administrators, school takeovers, loss of federal funding, etc., etc., etc. The failures of reaching English and Math standardized test targets began first in poor areas and spread to richer suburban schools.

Knowing that we would eventually never reach that target of 100% proficiency, special ed teachers continued teaching their students, teachers in wealthy school districts continued teaching, teachers in poor rural districts continued teaching, teachers in urban districts continued teaching, many of us continued teaching while some of us exited the profession early.

In some places, the school district would be held accountable, in some places, the school administration and the teachers would be ranked according to the test scores of their students, and in more than a few places, the teachers would be held accountable for how students that they never taught did on tests. In Florida, a student on his deathbed, along with his teachers and parents, was held accountable for his failing to take his standardized tests.

In short, students were held the most accountable of all and they lost. Teaching students to the test became paramount to education – first in poor schools, then circling out to wealthier schools. Recesses eliminated, lunches shortened, social studies and science in elementary school scaled back, art, music and P.E. eliminated, and brought to life only in districts or schools with wealthier parent populations. Play, the means by which young people learn, became a luxury allowed only in wealthier schools in which the children would inevitably do well on standardized tests anyway.

Because we know that standardized tests are really good at predicting one thing – family demographics.

And this new abuse, misuse and overuse of testing that ranked and sorted students was called equity. This was called opportunity. This was sanctioned from the top. The message became that disadvantaged kids suffer from one thing in life – low test scores on standardized tests due to bad teachers.

My entrance into the nightmarish repercussions of this top down system happened when my child was about to enter kindergarten. I merely had to google a potential public school, and there I could see the demographics and the standardized test scores disaggregated for each subgroup of students: White kid test scores, Asian kid test scores, Latino kid test scores, African American kid test scores, American Indian test scores, Filipino kid test scores, Free and Reduced Lunch kid test scores. It was all there for me and every other computer savvy educated parent to see: the worth of a school depended on the test scores and strata of their students.

In the old days we called it “white flight”; in the new days we call it, um, hmm, still, well, “white flight”. Instead of white people saying, “I don’t want my kid to go to a school with black/brown/colored kids”, educated and upwardly mobile parents could now say without fear of being called a racist, “I don’t want my kid to go to a school full of kids with low test scores”. Pretty slick.

Thank you, yearly testing, for all your marketing, ranking and sorting. You have squeezed the joy out of learning and teaching; you have squeezed out art, P.E., social studies, science, music, recess and maybe even lunch; thank you for teaching my first grader how to bubble with a number two wide grip pencil; thank you for making students think that they are behind on the first day of elementary school, thank you for increasing the profits for the makers of Ritalin and diagnosing a whole generation of kids with Attention Deficit Disorder; thank you for making fieldtrips obsolete, thank you for diminishing each and every kid’s individual worth outside of the bubble.

And as a teacher, I can thank yearly testing for completely upending lesson planning, student projects, research papers, and instructional time so that my entire school can devote itself to the task of chaperoning students as they take tests full of computer glitches, poorly written questions, and write essays that are graded by temporary workers at $11 an hour.

Twelve years ago I became a public school teacher in California and ten years ago I became a parent to a public school student in California.

Enough already.

Write to your Congressperson now.

Here are some crucial links:

Tell Congress to roll back standardized testing

Revising NCLB: Let your voice be heard

Tell Congress to vote no on HR #5 Student Success Act NCLB Reauthorization

Message to Congress: Don’t forget about standardized testing

Joyless kindergarten?

There comes a time when rules must be broken . . .that time is now

Why the NY Times is wrong about annual testing

Georgia school chief to feds: Stop the ”measure, pressure, and punish” approach

Is that all that matters to grown-ups?

Principal to Congress: I was wrong when I supported NCLB Here’s how to fix it

US Schools aren’t being outpaced by international competition

And a very intriguing article for all you parents and teachers who love math and wonder about the Common Core:

The man behind Common Core math

A letter to my aunt who believes that “the educational system is broken”

Several years ago, I sent an email to my aunt to defend public schools and my role as a public school teacher in the service of our children and our society. This is my story. This is that letter. Please share, and let’s fulfill the hope of public education and honor the wisdom of our teachers.


I know that you value me and have honored me before as an educator and teacher in a public school in California.  I don’t want to have to respond to this email because I have a fieldtrip to finish planning for, grading to do, a counselor to send an email to, and some parents to call (not to mention lesson planning to finish).  My school workday, which started at 7:00 a.m., just ended and most students have left, however, in many ways my day is only half-way over as I will be working on and off for the rest of the afternoon, evening and into the night.

I write to you because I cannot agree with the statement that “the educational system is broken.”  I work within the confines of this system everyday, and I know its weaknesses and strengths, its disasters and its triumphs.  I believe that the statements that you have made are borne out of a lack of access to educational research and critical literature on education in the United States.  Many of your statements come straight out of news sources that are more interested in creating consumers of news than in creating an educated public that has access to modern pedagogical debate, research, and practices in the educational world.  I would like to discuss education with people in this country – it is my passion, my career and my daily intellectual stimulus, but I wish I did not have to entertain a discussion in which there are so many misunderstandings and prejudices heaped upon public schoolspublic school teachers and public school administrators.

I have to respond to your statements, Tía, because they are demeaning and demoralizing in addition to being very superficial.  The amount of anti-teacher anti-union sentiment right now is extremely hurtful and disrespectful, and I, along with many other teachers, are having a very hard time coping with it because so much of it is hate-filled and lacking in any appreciation for the complexity of issues or acknowledgement of some historical perspective.  So, please, for my sake, and any of the number of good teachers you have had in your life, please, please do us a favor and read a lot more on the issues from multiple sources and consider the biases of the sources that you are reading or hearing from.

When you say you are not for the current “board of education, the system of education and teachers unions we currently have,” it would help to be more specific – each city, county and state have different boards of education, different systems of education in place and different teachers unions.  However, many California teachers belong to the California Teachers Union, an organization that has been on the front lines of making sure that students have qualified and professionally compensated teachers, an educationally manageable number of student contacts per teacher, and which also publishes a monthly magazine devoted to current educational research, improving student performance and behavior, lesson and curriculum ideas, and a multitude of easily digestible articles aimed at helping and supporting teachers be better teachers for their students.  My students have benefitted greatly by having unionized teachers who are paid a fair wage for our time and commitment, by having fewer students per class, among many other advantages.

Tía, you also mention that schools are “failure factories.”  As you say, “Schools all across the country have become failure factories if you have an “average” child, the statistics for graduating never mind attending college are beyond tragic!” Again, I have to disagree with the completeness of this statement.  I think that there is a historical perspective missing here – mainly that the United States is perhaps the only country in the world (and one of the first) to attempt to educate all (and I mean ALL) students, regardless of race, class, disability, etc.  Public schools in the United States do what few other countries do – attempt to educate the poorest to the wealthiest, the mentally and physically handicapped, emotionally abused and abandoned children, everyone comes in and we turn no one away – and we even keep them here through four years of high school.  This is a very recent development, and before the 1960’s, a smaller percentage of students graduated from high school, and a miniscule amount made it to college – college was reserved for mostly wealthy, mostly white and mostly male.  That so many women and so many people of color do now go to college and succeed is testament to the uniqueness and triumph of the educational system in the United States.

However, it is true that since the late 80’s, the achievement gap between white students and students of color has been on the rise again.  There is much much research on this phenomenon and what to do about.  One program you mention is the KIPP program which many cities (not just LA) have developed to better educate urban youth.  It has been successful, as have many other programs targeted to a local urban population – part of its success is due to extended staff hours (that are paid for), implementation of well-researched pedagogical developments in urban youth education, smaller class sizes, and a voluntary buy in from the parents of the students who choose to send their students to KIPP schools – parents who are generally a little more present for their children, and must agree to certain stipulations before sending their kids there.  And, if you look at all the research outcomes on KIPP schools, the evidence is mixed and not always as positive as you might have been led to believe.  KIPP is one example of educational innovation.  However, the amount and quality of educational innovation is staggering.  Public school teaching is not the same as when I grew up — that was mostly reading a dry textbook, answering dry questions and listening and / or tuning out a teacher’s lectures.  Nowadays, we public school teachers are ever increasing our knowledge of best practices by reading, collaborating with our colleagues, attending workshops and participating in staff development; we sing, dance and entertain, we teach using visuals, manipulatives, conceptual models, games and oral storytelling; we use primary sources, music, film, documentaries, guest speakers and realia.  When I think about how much this generation of teachers does as opposed to what my teachers did, I almost laugh at the absurdity and the discrepancy.  We are worlds away, and my, we teach better to a much more diverse group of students than the teachers of old ever did.

I, along with many other educational researches, believe that the true systemic problems in education are not due to “lack of choice,” “teachers unions,” “apathetic parents and students,” “relaxed standards,” etc., but rather they are due to the economic disparities in this country and the inequity in educational funding.  Poor kids have schools with less money, period, everywhere in the United States in which this disparity exists.  Poor kids have poorer health and poorer nutrition.  They have higher incidences of trauma, stress, violence in their lives.  They have less access to adult models of success in the community and fewer adults who care for them.  Test scores are always correct in one way – they show us the socio-economic-nutritional-caregiver world that the students bring to the classroom.  And at public schools, we love and teach every one of them for a better price than at a private school.

Examine what San Francisco Public Schools get paid to educate each child:

$4,000-5,000 per year per student (every student accepted regardless of class, sex, religious affiliation, disability or merit)

Examine the tuition of a private school education (each student hand-picked by administrators):

$6,000-12,000 per year (Catholic)
$18,000 Friends School
$21,000 San Francisco Day School

Public schools get more bang for their buck, over and over and over again, and I would like to reiterate, we teach everybody!  Every special need, we will accommodate and abide by the Federal and State mandates!  I will tell you stories if you’d like!

Anyway, I am tired.  I have joys and sadnesses everyday in my classes watching my students learn, struggle to learn, hate to learn, or opt out of learning altogether.  But, after a long day at work, the last thing I want to read is someone I know and love, completely dismiss my profession, my colleagues and the institutions I work for.  Please, please, be more open to learning the complexities, all the greys that make for no easy solutions or answers.  Just like there is no “one” correct way to teach an individual student, there is no one silver bullet solution to mend the problems of poverty and inequity in education.  If you are really interested in some non-teacher public school bashing reform ideas that are based on research, please read some of the articles that one educational reformer, a former professor of mine from Stanford wrote:


Tu Sobrina Malinche

The reason I teach in a public school

Even though some days I take a sick day so that I can write letters of recommendations for my seniors, I realize how brilliant my job is to know the young people that I know and to realize that they know people that they would never otherwise get to know . . .

Admissions Officer:

Yesterday Kyle Gold (not his real name) came to my classroom after school and sat down with a group of newly arrived immigrant students from Guatemala and Mexico to learn how to make paper flowers for the school Day of the Dead Altar. The students spoke almost no English. Kyle listened to them, asked questions and used his Spanish to join the small group and find out more about how they celebrate Day of the Dead in their home communities. Kyle’s paper flower was a flop, but the newcomer students were very kind and encouraging, impressed with his Spanish and his interest in participating in this ritual.

Kyle Gold is the reason that I teach. He is the top academic student at his high school, has won numerous awards for his intellectual achievement, his writing, his computer programming skills and his record of volunteer service. Yet, on a Wednesday afternoon in October, he chooses to spend his afternoon sitting with a group of newcomer students working together on crafting flowers and talking about their home countries. Then he gets up and goes outside to the school lawn to discuss Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby with two other students from the Creative Writing Club. A newly arrived Peruvian boy with intellectual aspirations wishes to join them. Kyle invites him in and helps translate some of the concepts that he and the other English dominant writing club members discuss. Then the group comes back to talk to me, the Spanish teacher, and we discuss Bartleby, the Scrivener. Amazing. This is Kyle – the young man who sees the value and the potential of every human being. A young man who is equally apt to discuss Melville with his teachers and his peers, as well as with newcomer immigrant students who have never once heard of the author.

I could write a long list of Kyle’s intellectual achievements, his incisive and astute comments in Spanish class, as well as in the Creative Writing Club that he founded and I advise. I could write about how his analysis of the CIA involvement in the Guatemalan Civil War in Spanish class was on par with a graduate student of Latin American Studies. I could write about how his high level of Spanish fluency is astonishing for someone who has never been immersed in the language. I could write about how his short stories and poems are well-crafted, original and memorable. I could write about every award and honor that Kyle has won, or that I have recommended him to receive. I could write about how he inspires other students to think critically, to think differently and to think creatively, in and outside of the boundaries of class.

Yet, this is not why each and every one of his teachers and mentors sing Kyle’s praises. Kyle is deep. He is humble. He is a genuine humanitarian. He is curious and intrinsically motivated like few others. And he is inspired by humanity – to reach out, to learn, to grow, to question, to experience and to create. He befriends everyone from every walk of life, and makes a special effort to work with and understand others whose experiences are absolutely not his own. Kyle is the student who went to Haiti and created a computer program to teach other young people computer skills. Kyle is the student who volunteered to be in my AMIGOS tutorial class to help immigrant students with their math, English and how to navigate the Internet. Kyle is the student who was delighted to work with a young Guatemalan girl whose first language was Mayan and who taught him the Mayan numbering system.

Kyle is the student who sees the world as it is, adapts to it, and courageously seeks opportunities for hope, learning, and improvement. He is engaged, motivated, aware and committed. He is action oriented, yet gentle, kind and down to earth. Kyle, more than any student I have encountered, needs a place to develop every aspect of his humanitarian and intellectual prowess – a place that will challenge and draw upon his capacities to devour books, knowledge, language, history, and create, plan and invent. Kyle is the type of student that will not only meet every academic and global challenge offered by college, but, more importantly, will add to the academic discourse, fellowship, and optimism among his classmates and professors.

Sincerely, Maestra Malinche

Spanish teacher

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.” ― Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School